Friday, July 27, 2012

Stevens Textplication #21: The Apostrophe to Vincentine

“…quand, sur l'or glauque de lointaines
Verdures dédiant leur vigne à des fontaines,
Ondoie une blancheur animale au repos:
Et qu'au prélude lent où naissent les pipeaux
Ce vol de cygnes, non! de naïades se sauve
Ou plonge...“ – Stephan Mallarmé, from “L'après-midi d'un faune” (The Afternoon of a Faun)

“…when, on the icy gold of distant
Green dedicating its vines to fountains,
Undulates an animal whiteness at rest:
And as slow prelude in which pipes are born
This flight of swans, no! Naiads flee
Or plunge…"

“The Apostrophe to Vincentine” from 1918 uses roman numbering as its primary motif to convey the peculiarly Stevensian take on the relationship between self and world:

I figured you as nude between
Monotonous earth and dark blue sky.
It made you seem so small and lean
And nameless,
Heavenly Vincentine.

I saw you then, as warm as flesh,
But yet not too brunette,
As warm, as clean.
Your dress was green,
Was whited green,
Green Vincentine.

Then you came walking,
In a group
Of human others,
Yes: you came walking,
Yes: you came talking.

And what I knew you felt
Came then.
Monotonous earth I saw become
Illimitable sphere of you,
And that white animal, so lean,
Turned Vincentine,
And that white animal, so lean,
Turned heavenly, heavenly Vincentine.

The stanza labeled I deposits us right into a nether region where it’s clear that this undefined and ambiguous figure of Vincentine exists somewhere between flesh (“nude”) and spirit (“heavenly”). The most literal reading of the passage would be if the speaker imagined the angel as human it would diminish her, just as a male fantasy of a female makes the actual flesh and blood female seem “small” and impersonal (“nameless”).

As if to answer that unsatisfying attempt at imagining the figure, Vincentine leaps forth in stanza II “warm as flesh,” with a distinct brunette hair and a particular “whited green” dress. “As warm as flesh” is not quite flesh however, just as a dress is a covering not quite the actual person. One gets the sense of the sun bursting forth from the pre-dawn of stanza I to unveil the green of the earth.

In stanza III the personification becomes even more vivid, as the earth wakes up to show moving human shapes (“you came walking”) and the sound of human voices (“you came talking”). “Yes,” twice, to announce there is now an actual person, however that person is not specifically labeled as Vincentine. Also striking and perhaps related is the way this individual when finally seen is subsumed within human society. That sublimation cannot be an end for the speaker who seeks something more sublime.

The resolution in stanza IV comes down, in my view, to the first line: “and what I knew you felt.” The speaker, as he is imagining and visualizing the presence of the figure goes inside Vincentine so to speak to assume an internal as well as external knowledge, and with that everything becomes Vincentine. Not only does the “white animal” (a poetic description of a human, the “you” in the prior stanza?) become (“turned”) heavenly, but there is no separation – the flesh (“animal”) has become spirit (“illimitable”).

These stanzas taken as a progression show the operation of imagination, from a vague and insufficient view to a transcendence, much like the Old Testament God transforming a world void of form into a paradise on earth.

The poet has no identity, according to Keats, he/she automatically becomes the beings and things around, but (unvoiced by Keats) there is a poet’s identity in this, a separation, of wanting for it to be more, more complete, more intense, more connected. It is this urge that for Stevens (expanding on Keats) drives the imagination. The wonder of it is that the Earth (at least for this poem) responds enough for the imagination to hold onto its primacy.

Rooting for a sports team is exciting until your team loses; falling in love is stupendous until you can’t agree on what to do together. Then the earth becomes “monotonous” and imagination takes over to create a more desired outcome, thus turning what would end in human bitterness into something transforming, revealing of something larger, a gateway to the unutterable. In the loneliness of imagination is found a prophecy.


Jack said...

Beautiful poem, stupendous analysis. Some of the best reading out there.

the walking man said...

I liked this well enough especially with the in depth commentary but on that note: III does name Vincentine but as a portion of something larger, a tree in the forest or a mountain in a range but if following the world imagery from that which came before in that particular section is it even necessary to name her? For we have already come to view "her" as an object alive but not human.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Yet again, so insightful and clear and clarifying. This poem is so odd and lovely--your interpretation absolutely makes sense.

Sometimes Stevens does this weird sing-songy's like Annabel Lee keeps showing up in this poem, and then running away. I always get distracted by the tone and meter in those moments.